U.S. Air Force Certifies SpaceX for National Security Launches, Ending Monopoly

SpaceX Falcon 9 is now certified for USAF launches. SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
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The U.S. Air Force announced Tuesday that they have certified SpaceX to launch the nations critical and highly valuable national security satellites on the firms Falcon 9 rocket, thereby breaking the decade old launch monopoly held by launch competitor United Launch Alliance (ULA). ULA is a joint venture owned by aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The Air Force’s goal in approving the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster is aimed at drastically cutting the high cost of access to space by introducing competition in the awarding of military mission launch contacts. The prior contract involved a sole source $11 Billion “block buy” bid for 36 rocket cores from ULA in December 2013 which was legally challenged by SpaceX in April 2014, but eventually settled by SpaceX in an agreement with the USAF earlier this year.

Lieutenant General Samuel Greaves, Commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), announced the long awaited decision on Tuesday, May 26.

The certification milestone came after a grueling two year review process in which the Air Force invested more than $60 million and 150 people to thoroughly review all aspects of the Falcon 9 booster. The review was based on three successful flights by the Falcon 9 v1.1 which first launched in late 2013.

The purpose of certification is to assure that qualified launch providers could meet the challenge of safely, securely and reliably lofting expensive U.S. national security military missions to space and into their intended orbits with full mission capability that are critical for maintaining national defense.

“The SpaceX and SMC teams have worked hard to achieve certification,” said Greaves, Commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and Air Force Program Executive Officer for Space, in a statement.

“And we’re also maintaining our spaceflight worthiness process supporting the National Security Space missions. Our intent is to promote the viability of multiple EELV-class launch providers as soon as feasible.”

And the competitive launch races “for award of qualified national security space launch missions” between SpaceX and ULA start very soon, within the next month says the USAF.

In June, the Air Force will issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) for GPS III launch services. ULA has three GPS launches in its manifest for 2015.

Of course SpaceX was overjoyed on hearing the certification news.

“This is an important step toward bringing competition to National Security Space launch, said Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and Lead Designer.

‘We thank the Air Force for its confidence in us and look forward to serving it well.”

Until today, ULA has held a launch monopoly over military missions since the company was founded in 2006. ULA also launches many NASA science missions, but very few commercial satellites.

Thus the U.S. military and NASA provide the core of ULA’s business and the source of much of its income and profits.

SpaceX is suing the Air Force for the right to compete for US national security satellites launches using Falcon 9 rockets such as this one which successfully launched the SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX is now certified by the Air Force for the right to compete for US national security satellites launches using Falcon 9 rockets such as this one which successfully launched the SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“This is a very important milestone for the Air Force and the Department of Defense,” said Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, in a statement.

“SpaceX’s emergence as a viable commercial launch provider provides the opportunity to compete launch services for the first time in almost a decade. Ultimately, leveraging of the commercial space market drives down cost to the American taxpayer and improves our military’s resiliency.”

Other military spacecraft in the future could involve vehicles such as the X-37B space plane which recently launched on an Atlas V, as well as weather satellites, signals intelligence and missile warning satellites and a range of top secret missions for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) that have been routinely launched by ULA with a 100% success rate to date.

USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni
USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni

ULA’s stable of launchers includes the Atlas V and Delta IV families of vehicles. ULA is phasing out the Delta IV due to its high costs. Only the Delta IV Heavy will remain in service as required to launch the very heaviest satellites that cannot be accommodated by less powerful rockets.

ULA is also replacing the Atlas V with the partly reusable new Vulcan rocket, that will be phased in starting in 2019 using American-made engines from either Blue Origin or Aerojet Rocketdyne.

The Atlas V uses Russian made RD-180 engines, who’s use has become highly contentious since the deadly crisis in Ukraine erupted in 2014.

The ensuing threats of RD-180 engine embargoes and imposition of sanctions and counter sanctions imposed by the US and Russia have thus placed US national security at risk by being dependent on a rocket with foreign made engines whose future supply chain was uncertain.

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been highly critical of the ULA dependence on the Russian RD-180 engines and issued this statement in response to the Air Force announcement.

“The certification of SpaceX as a provider for defense space launch contracts is a win for competition, said McCain.

“Over the last 15 years, as sole-source contracts were awarded, the cost of EELV was quickly becoming unjustifiably high. I am hopeful that this and other new competition will help to bring down launch costs and end our reliance on Russian rocket engines that subsidizes Vladimir Putin and his cronies.”

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Overall the Air Force “invested more than $60 million and 150 people in the certification effort which encompassed 125 certification criteria, including more than 2,800 discreet tasks, 3 certification flight demonstrations, verifying 160 payload interface requirements, 21 major subsystem reviews and 700 audits in order to establish the technical baseline from which the Air Force will make future flight worthiness determinations for launch.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT  on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Moscow Delivers Double Whammy to US Space Efforts – Bans Rocket Engines for Military Use, Won’t Prolong ISS Work

United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket – powered by Russian made RD-180 engines – and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload poised for launch at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, in March 2014.
Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
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Moscow delivered a double whammy of bad news to a broad range of US space efforts today by banning the use of Russian made rocket engines for US military national security launches and by declining to prolong cooperation on the International Space Station (ISS) – says Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, who is in charge of space and defense industries.

Rogozin was quoted in a story prominently featured today, May 13, on the English language website of Russia Today, a Russian TV news and cultural network.

“Moscow is banning Washington from using Russian-made rocket engines, which the US has used to deliver its military satellites into orbit,” said Rogozin according to the Russia Today report.

Virtually every aspect of the manned and unmanned US space program – including NASA, other government agencies, private aerospace company’s and crucial US national security payloads – are highly dependent on Russian & Ukrainian rocketry and are clearly at risk amidst the current Ukrainian crisis as tensions continue to escalate with deadly new clashes reported today in Ukraine – with global repercussions.

The engines at issue are the Russian made RD-180 engines – which power the first stage of the venerable Atlas V rocket built by United Launch Alliance (ULA) and are used to launch a wide array of US government satellites including top secret US military spy satellites for the US National Reconnaissance Office, like NROL-67, as well as science satellites for NASA like the Curiosity Mars rover and MAVEN Mars orbiter.

The dual nozzle RD-180 engines are manufactured in Russia by NPO Energomash. Rogozin’s statement effectively blocks their export to the US.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. Credit: RIA Novosti
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. Credit: RIA Novosti

“We proceed from the fact that without guarantees that our engines are used for non-military spacecraft launches only, we won’t be able to supply them to the US,” Rogozin said.

So although the launch of NASA science missions might preliminarily appear to be exempt, they could still be at serious risk based on a qualifier from Rogozin, pertaining to RD-180 engines already delivered.

“If such guarantees aren’t provided the Russian side will also be unable to perform routine maintenance for the engines, which have been previously delivered to the US, he added.

A ULA spokesperson told me that the company has a two year supply of RD-180 engines already stockpiled in the US.

Rogozin’s statements today are clearly in retaliation to stiffened economic sanctions imposed by the US and Western nations in response to Russia’s actions in the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea; as I reported earlier here, here and here.

Therefore, US National Security spy satellite and NASA science launches are left lingering with uncertainty and potential disarray.

Rogozin is specifically named on the US economic sanctions target list.

He was also named by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in his firms attempt to block the importation of the RD-180 engines by ULA for the Atlas V as a violation of US sanctions.

Federal Judge Susan Braden initially imposed a temporary injunction blocking the RD-180 imports on April 30. She rescinded that order last Thursday, May 8, after receiving written communications clarifications from the US Justice and Commerce departments that the engine import did not violate the US government imposed sanctions.

Rogozin went on to say that “Moscow also isn’t planning to agree to the US offer of prolonging operation of the International Space Station (ISS) [to 2024].

“We currently project that we’ll require the ISS until 2020,” he said. “We need to understand how much profit we’re making by using the station, calculate all the expenses and depending on the results decide what to do next.”

“A completely new concept for further space exploration is currently being developed by the relevant Russian agencies”.

NASA announced early this year the agency’s intention to extend ISS operations to at least 2024, and is seeking agreement from all the ISS partners including Russia.

Since the shutdown of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 before a replacement crew vehicle was available, American astronauts are now 100% dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for rides to the ISS and back.

Congress has also repeatedly slashed NASA’s commercial crew program budget, forcing at least an 18 month delay in its start up and thus continued reliance on the Soyuz for years to come at over $70 million per seat.

NASA thus has NO immediate alternatives to Russia’s Soyuz – period.

The Atlas V is also planned as the launcher for two of the three companies vying for the next round of commercial crew contracts aimed at launching US astronauts to the ISS. The commercial crew contracts will be awarded by NASA later this year.

In a previous statement regarding the US sanctions against Russia, Rogozin said that sanctions could “boomerang” against the US space program and that perhaps NASA should “deliver their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.”

Curiosity rover launches to Mars atop Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer
NASA’s Curiosity rover launches to Mars atop Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Atlas V 1st stage is powered by Russian made RD-180 engines.
Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s articles as the Ukraine crisis escalates with uncertain and potentially dire consequences for US National Security and NASA.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Boeing, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Ken’s upcoming presentation: Mercy College, NY, May 19: “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars” and “NASA’s Future Crewed Spaceships.”

The International Space Station (ISS) in low Earth orbit.  Credit: NASA
The International Space Station (ISS) in low Earth orbit.
The sole way for every American and station partner astronaut to fly to space and the ISS is aboard the Russian Soyuz manned capsule since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttles in 2011. There are currently NO alternatives to Russia’s Soyuz. Credit: NASA